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Michigan plans to rid environment of mercury pollution

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Jen Eyer acknowledges going overboard now and then about protecting her 3-year-old daughter, but she makes no apologies for all but eliminating fish from her diet.

With a second child due in September, the Ann Arbor author of a Web log called ``Neurotic Mom" is worried about mercury contamination.

Mercury levels in some of the Great Lakes region's fish species are so high they've prompted government consumption advisories for pregnant women and young children.

``My husband is an avid fly fisherman, and I think it's sad that we can't go fishing and eat what we catch," she says. ``But when you're talking about a developing fetus, the experts say any level of exposure to mercury can be unsafe."

Mercury, a heavy liquid metal, has proven its usefulness over the years in products as varied as thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, mechanical switches, and tooth fillings. But it's a toxin that can wreak havoc on human nervous systems, particularly in children, prompting a nationwide campaign to find alternatives and rid the environment of mercury pollution.

In April, Governor Jennifer Granholm ordered Michigan's coal-burning electric power generators -- by far the biggest producers of mercury -- to slash airborne emissions 90 percent within nine years. She had been under pressure from green activists to fulfill a 2002 campaign promise to crack down on mercury.

It took about three years for the governor to assemble an advisory panel, await its recommendations, and make a decision. But the task of meeting the governor's goal is only beginning.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is developing a set of regulations for power companies in their quest for a 90 percent cutback. A panel of state officials, outside experts, and interest groups will advise the DEQ, even as debate continues over how much of a rollback really is needed.

Industry leaders prefer a mercury reduction plan announced by the Bush administration last year. It envisions a nationwide average cut of 70 percent by 2018, although some believe the fine print would give producers considerably longer. Targets would differ by state; Michigan's would be about 66 percent.

Granholm's plan will force electricity generators to invest huge sums developing mercury reduction technology that might not work, imposing higher costs on their customers, says Michael Johnston, regulatory affairs director for the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

``We're already the only nation on the planet regulating mercury, and Michigan wants to go beyond the federal requirement. Talk about a competitive disadvantage," Johnston says.

DEQ Director Steve Chester says nationwide studies suggest the cost of mercury controls would be minimal for electricity consumers -- 60 cents a month or less for the typical residential user once the controls are fully in place.

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